Sun's Red-Hot Strategy

Through acquisitions and homegrown tools, the company has amassed a dizzying array of offerings.

Sun Microsystems Inc. is no stranger to the data center. It has long sold an enterprise-class operating system-Solaris-and high-end hardware, including RISC-based systems (SPARC), high-performance clusters and even supercomputers.

Virtualization has been a part of that, too. Anyone who has been in IT for more than a few years remembers all the talk from Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy about the Network Computer (NC). This is essentially a thin client that accesses programs and data over the Internet. Sun has been selling such a device-really a desktop virtualization tool-as the SunRay for years.

One of Sun's earliest stabs at server virtualization was Solaris Zones. With Zones, also known as hard partitioning, multiprocessing systems had applications dedicated to each processor or set of processors. While not technically virtualization, the result is the same-a single chassis acting as multiple discrete computers. Obviously, the limitation is in the number of processors.

Sun's next move was Solaris Containers, a big advance over Zones. Similar to Parallel's Virtuozzo, Containers is OS virtualization. This approach virtualizes the OS itself. One copy of the OS acts as up to thousands of individual copies on a single piece of hardware. The OS is, by definition, the same on all these partitions. In fact, you're really only running one copy, meaning you pay for only one copy.

Wolf on Sun

Sun has a very good virtualization strategy and a very good opportunity for sustained growth in the virtualization space. Sun now offers a very good layered virtualization solution with LDoms, Solaris Containers and xVM (Xen-based virtualization).

Sun understands that data center challenges will be solved by a combination of virtualization technologies and it is actively building out its management framework to provide a single view of resources (physical and virtual) across an enterprise.

In time, I anticipate that we'll see Solaris Containers running inside Xen-based virtual machines (VMs). Layering the two technologies together allows you to capitalize on the security and consolidation benefits of Solaris Containers while also realizing the mobility benefits of Xen VMs. So ultimately you'll have the best of both worlds.

Sun has made the important step of partnering with Microsoft, which thus far has been a requirement in ensuring success in x86 virtualization. With more than 90 percent of x86 VMs running a Windows OS, full support from Microsoft is required if a vendor wants to grow its virtualization solution. The idealists out there may have had strong objections to Sun aligning with Microsoft, but Sun knew that such a move was a necessary step if the company wanted to have any relevance in the x86 virtualization space.

Sun has some catching up to do in order to be on par with HP and IBM, but as its virtualization offerings mature, the opportunity for it to be a major player is certainly there.

-- Chris Wolf

Those efforts are just one small part of Sun's current virtualization approach; in fact, Zones and Containers are pretty low on the Sun virtualization totem pole these days.

The new strategy revolves around what Sun calls xVM, an umbrella term for all of the company's virtual offerings. Sun has promised to invest some $2 billion in building this new line of open source virtualization tools. "Our strategy today revolves around Sun xVM, which is about virtualization and management. Under xVM, there are two categories: Sun xVM Server and the Sun xVM Ops Center," explains Sun's Vijay Sarathy, senior director of marketing for xVM.

Sun xVM Server, based on the Xen open source hypervisor, is due this summer. For several years Sun has been moving steadily toward open source; witness OpenSolaris, its main OS. As part of that plan, Sun has been building the Xen hypervisor right into Solaris.

With Sun xVM, the company is also doing the opposite-xVM Server includes actual pieces of Solaris, which Sun says adds robustness and security. Features include:

  • Dynamic Tracing (DTrace): troubleshooting and tuning for the OS
  • Fault Management Architecture (FMA): error handling and resolution
  • The Zettabyte File System: a Solaris File System built on the concept of storage pools; it includes dynamic striping and snapshots

xVM Server
Where Zones and Containers focused on SPARC and Solaris, the move to xVM Server signals an embrace of x86/x64 hardware and industry-standard OSes.

xVM Server is currently in the late stages of development and should ship this summer, at least the x86 flavor.

"It leverages a lot of the capabilities of the open source Xen. It also heavily borrows from a lot of things we've done over the years with Solaris and our operating system portfolio. You get the interoperability and the openness of the open source platform, but we're delivering a lot of capabilities like manageability, our security and availability, our reliability-all the things that we're known for in the operating systems world and putting that into the hypervisor so that customers can now leverage that with Windows and Linux," Sarathy explains.

xVM will run on x86 hardware from Sun and other vendors and interoperates with third-party hypervisors such as VMware, Xen and Hyper-V. "For instance, we will natively support [VMware's] VMDK virtual appliances and will be able to import [virtual hard drives] (VHDs) and support VHD, which is the Hyper-V format. What this means is that customers that are accustom to running their virtualization servers on VMware or other virtualization platforms will be able to easily import and migrate to our platform," Sarathy says.

Sun believes xVM is a compelling alternative to other hypervisors. "We will provide some very specific capabilities like predictive self-healing, which we have been offering for many years on our high-end boxes through Solaris. If a system starts detecting malfunctions in hardware, say the CPU starts failing or memory starts to act up, our system is able to monitor and keep track of that. When that starts to deteriorate, it will bring those hardware components off the processing and transition [it to other components], so the computing continues to go on," Sarathay explains. "Today, if you have a Windows server doing something like that, you might see a Blue Screen of Death. You lose your state."

Sarathay also points to Sun's virtual I/O capabilities. "We have a very advanced networking stack. One of the things we'll be able to do with our hypervisor is, for instance, provision a specific amount of network bandwidth to specific VMs or specific guests on the server. If you have a whole bunch of virtual servers running on a server, if one of them happens to take up an excess of the bandwidth, the other ones are going to be starved. Today this is not functionality you'll find in VMware or in any of the other virtualization engines out there."

Many of the security features of xVM Server come from Solaris, which to a large extent is actually embedded within the hypervisor. "With our networking and security capabilities, we have endpoint to endpoint security with things like IPsec and encryption technologies-which will make sure that you don't have guests being compromised. And even if one guest is compromised, you can isolate it from the other guests."

Sun Mini Case Study: Denver Health

Not everyone is obsessed with boot times. But those who work in health care facilities with strict privacy rules, like Denver Health, may disagree. You don't just log on in the morning and shut down at night-and maybe log off whenever you leave the screen after a short period of inactivity. For privacy, you have to log off every time you leave your desk.

Now making those log-ons faster is a thin-client architecture based on Solaris on the servers, and SunRay thin-client devices and software. The new system is greener, and has cut smart card log-in times in half, from half a minute to less than 15 seconds. It also reduced the time it takes to set up a new client from an hour to 10 minutes.

xVM Ops Center
On the management front, Sun has xVM Ops Center, which shipped in February. This tool can provision bare-metal hypervisors and keep VMs updated through patches, firmware updates and other software updates. The tool, aimed at Solaris and Linux, runs on x86 or SPARC.

Sun xVM Ops Center is based on two existing products: the Sun Connection Satellite for patching and the N1 System Manager for provisioning. "Ops Center is a consolidated tool for virtualization management and is for the physical as well as the virtual data center. It's also a heterogeneous tool. It can discover the infrastructure you have and catalog that. It can also turn on your servers and provision them -- not only with the firmware, but the operating system," explains Sarathay. "Once you're all up and running from an operational perspective, it has best-in-class patch management." Sun also plans to license an open source version of the tool.

But while Sun pushes the new, it still fully supports older, more proprietary technologies such as Solaris Containers. In fact, xVM Server also now refers to these older virtualization technologies. "Sun xVM Server on SPARC leverages a lot of what we have like LDOM and Containers, and those will continue to be there," Parathay says.

Plays Well with Others
While Sun has a wealth of proprietary virtualization technologies, it also supports industry-standard hypervisors, and even has a deal with former enemy Microsoft. "We have a very tight relationship with Microsoft. The agreement we have with them allows us to run Solaris on their Hyper-V platform, and conversely run Windows on our xVM server platform," Sarathay says.

Sun also has an OEM relationship with VMware Inc. "that fits in with our whole open and interoperable and providing customers with choice [strategy]," Sarathay says. Sun supports the full VMWare Virtual Infrastructure, but has not decided if it will support VMware's embedded hypervisor, ESXi.

Experts back Sun's open strategy. According to a report by IDC analyst John Humphreys, Sun is focused on offering choice.

Analyst Mark Bowker, who follows virtualization for Milford, Mass.-based industry analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group, says Sun is going hard after the virtualization market. "The ones that own the technology are probably the ones that have the most commitment ... Sun and IBM [with PowerPC]," Bowker writes in an e-mail interview.

The Innotek Angle
That commitment was further demonstrated with the recent acquisition of Innotek. Innotek created Virtual Box, a Type II hypervisor (which runs under an OS and not directly on the hardware like a bare metal, or Type I, hypervisor) similar to Parallels for Mac or Microsoft Virtual PC. The x86-based tool runs on Mac, Solaris, Windows and Linux. Supported guests include NT, Vista, Windows Server, DOS, Windows 3.x, Linux and OpenBSD.

Sun is careful not to oversell and overpromise Innotek. For Sun, xVM is the enterprise-class solution, while VirtualBox is mainly for developers. "Innotek was aimed at the developer community; its offering is complementary to xVM Server," says Sarathay.

Sun is also working to bring the two worlds together. For instance, a Solaris Container could run Virtual Box.

Like many of Sun's other offerings, the tool is entirely open source. And it includes a software development kit so developers can write to it and modify it to their heart's content. Other features include:

  • Shared folders so hosts and guests can use the same files.
  • Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) support, so virtual machines can be accessed by thin clients.

"Virtual Box is something we will make freely available to developers who can craft multi-tier applications. When they're ready to deploy this into an enterprise-grade, stable, reliable, highly available infrastructure, then they will be able to take their virtual appliances and put them on xVM Server," Sarathay says.

Based on its acquisition of StorageTek, Sun has a virtual tape product called the StorageTek Virtual Storage Manager. On the disk and array side, Sun counts on its partners: "Sun uses Hitachi Data Systems TagmaStore as its storage virtualization platform. The TagmaStore is a large, monolithic array that virtualizes a variety of heterogeneous storage. It's called array-based virtualization, compared to IBM's appliance-based virtualization," says Deni Connor, principal analyst for Storage Strategies Now, a storage-focused research and consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. "Sun used to have the Sun StorEdge 6920, a mid-range array with virtualization capabilities, but it stopped manufacturing it and let Hitachi support any existing customers. The 6920 contained technology from Pirus, a company it had acquired for its virtualization technology."

Sun on the Desktop
A longtime player in thin clients and desktop virtualization, Sun just revamped its virtual desktop lineup with Sun Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) 2.0, announced late this winter. VDI is a suite of tools that virtualize Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows Mobile, Solaris and Linux desktops. Besides serving up these desktop OSes from servers, VDI 2.0 works not just with Sun technologies but third-party hypervisors, and of course will support Sun's upcoming xVM Server hypervisor.

On the management side, IT can use VDI to create classes or pools of virtual machines, such as "executive," "administrative," or "factory floor." New machines can be quickly deployed based on these templates, and automatically set up with the proper apps and rights.

Open to Open Source
Whatever Sun does in the future, it's clear that open source will play a key role. And that, Sun believes, makes it different from VMware and Microsoft.

"Open source has been a fundamental tenet of our strategy. VMware has built itself around a very proprietary, very self-contained offering. We are leveraging open source and the open source community," explains Sarathay. "The hypervisor itself is open source. Everything we do under the Sun xVM umbrella is open source and we are building a community around that. Everything -- including the hypervisor, the management framework -- will all be open source and available to the community."

So where does Sun stand in the overall virtualization scheme? Some believe it may be stronger in the lab than in the market. "If you were to put blinders on and look at everything Sun has in its portfolio, it has very significant technology and capabilities. But I don't think it's done a great job in terms of going to market with what it has. As a result, it has more of a niche than leadership role," says Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz & Associates.